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Business Writing Truths and Myths

For the 25 years I have taught business writing classes, I have heard and rejected a few myths. And I have learned and applied some important truths. 

Is each of the five statements below a truth, a myth, or a mix of both depending on the situation? You decide.

1. Jargon is bad. Truth or myth?
The other day on Twitter a writing expert criticized the use of "spend" and "ask" as nouns. In an exchange with me, he described their use as abhorrent jargon. Yet "advertising spend" is a common term among people in marketing and advertising, and "What's the ask?" comes up regularly in my clients' business meetings and messages. Everyone knows what "the ask" means, and people appreciate its conciseness. Abhorrent jargon? No! It's useful, meaningful language.  

Don't tie yourself in a knot trying to avoid jargon. Jargon can be the perfect form of communication among experts and people who work together. Just be careful that you define or replace jargon when your audience may not understand it.

2. You should write the way you talk. Truth or myth?
When I talk in a professional setting, I try not to open my mouth unless I have thought first–if even for just a moment–about what I am going to say. I don't say anything rude, irrelevant, or confusing. I do my best to be helpful, diplomatic, and clear.

So yes, I write the way I talk–but that's because of the way I talk. You should not write the way you talk if your talk is rambling, silly, mean spirited, or filled with errors–unless you are a character in a novel. If you talk clearly, concisely, courteously, and correctly, write the way you talk.

3. Brevity is a virtue. Truth or myth?
In business writing classes, nearly everyone comes with the goal of writing concisely. It's a terrific goal. Being concise–that is, expressing much in few words, being clear and succinct–is a great virtue in business communication.

But brevity? Sometimes brevity conveys too little. A brief proposal may not sway your manager or client. A brief apology may seem false. Brief replies can come across as careless or abrupt. Brief web pages may leave visitors hungry for more but unwilling to work for it. Brevity can be a virtue, but make sure you have written enough to communicate what your reader needs. Make sure you have answered your reader's questions.

4. A rich vocabulary will help you write better. Truth or myth?
When I send a text, I am amazed that my cell phone can finish many of my sentences. Is my writing that predictable? Yet when I type something unusual–for example, the restaurant name Plaka Estiatorio–my phone will change it, in this case to Plaza Estimator Iowa.

The same is true with your business vocabulary. If you use the language your readers expect, they can move through your message quickly, almost finishing your sentences. But when you use language they don't see regularly–for example, circumvent rather than bypass–they may think you intend something you do not.

A rich vocabulary is a gift, but it won't necessarily help you write better. The simplest, precise word is what your readers need. If you use an unusual word because it is the best word for the situation, define it and use it regularly. Then it will become familiar to everyone. Even my cell phone recognizes Plaka Estiatorio now.

5. Short sentences show a lack of writing skill. Truth or myth?
When we were younger and in school, our short subject-verb sentences did show a lack of skills. We were taught to vary our sentence lengths and structures to create a blend of simple, compound, and compound-complex sentences that made our writing more interesting. We may have even lost points for "flow" if we continued to write simple sentences.

But in the workplace, short, simple sentences help readers move fast through our messages. They help readers get from Point A to Point B quickly. In contrast, 40- and 50-word sentences force readers to wait until the period, or full stop, to get the point.

Here's a 45-word-sentence version of the paragraph above: "Although in the workplace, short, simple sentences help readers move fast through our messages, helping them get from Point A to Point B quickly, 40- and 50-word sentences, by contrast, force readers to wait until the period, or full stop, to get the point." That impressive sentence makes readers work too hard!

Trust yourself. If you hear a writing "rule" that doesn't make sense to you, in your industry, with your readers, ignore it. Apply the tips and principles that work for you and your readers.

Have you confronted and discarded business writing myths? Do you apply evergreen truths? I welcome your stories. 

Syntax Training


Posted by Lynn Gaertner Johnson
By Lynn Gaertner-Johnston

Lynn Gaertner-Johnston has helped thousands of employees and managers improve their business writing skills and confidence through her company, Syntax Training. In her corporate training career of more than 20 years, she has worked with executives, engineers, scientists, sales staff, and many other professionals, helping them get their messages across with clarity and tact.

A gifted teacher, Lynn has led writing classes at more than 100 companies and organizations such as MasterCard, Microsoft, Boeing, Nintendo, REI, AARP, Ledcor, and Kaiser Permanente. Near her home in Seattle, Washington, she has taught managerial communications in the MBA programs of the University of Washington and UW Bothell. She has created a communications course, Business Writing That Builds Relationships, and provides the curriculum at no cost to college instructors.

A recognized expert in business writing etiquette, Lynn has been quoted in "The Wall Street Journal," "The Atlantic," "Vanity Fair," and other media.

Lynn sharpened her business writing skills at the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a master's degree in communication, and at Bradley University, with a bachelor's degree in English. She grew up in suburban Chicago, Illinois.

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